The following is an annotated bibliography of some key texts relevant to political theory. This collection is a first step toward a much more comprehensive and appropriately categorised list of important works (forthcoming).

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Abbasi, Rushain. Did premodern Muslims distinguish the religious and the secular? The din-dunya binary in medieval Islamic thought. Journal of Islamic Studies31(2), 2020: 1–42.

Abbasi’s main contention is that earlier Muslims, contrary to popular belief, did distinguish between dunyāwī and the dīnī. Rather than conceiving of these categories as polar opposites—the former equaling ‘good’ and the later ‘bad’ as this binary is often characterized in contemporary popular Islamic discourse—in earlier Islamic writings they appear in “a mutually-defining relationship” in which they often actually strengthen each other. Furthermore, the dīnī-dunyāwī distinction ought not be seen as identical to the modern framing of the religious-secular distinction. While a conceptual distinction was often maintained at ‘a primary level’ between the two realms, at a higher-order, secondary level the religious or dīnī was more powerful, always having the capacity to filter down into the dunyāwī. Abbasi supports his argument via extensively referencing the work of earlier scholars, including al-Ghazali’s Iḥyā’ ʿUlūm al-Dīn, to show that earlier Muslims saw the two distinct realms complimenting rather than contesting each other; proper action in the dunyāwī help one’s dīn. Wealth for example, which is primarily related to one’s dunyāwī well-being, can ultimately serve as a benefit or detriment towards one’s well-being in the dīnī depending on how one uses it. If wealth is spent on ḥajj or jihād (or other Islamically commendable purposes), then one is ultimately improving their lot in the afterlife.  On the other hand, if one uses their worldly wealth for avarice, then they are setting themselves up for failure in the hereafter. The biggest difference between the analogous dīnī-dunyāwī and religious-secular distinction more commonly used today is one of degree. Only in modern times have the two been so sharply divided. The author contends that this sharp division ultimately is unIslamic—or at least is alien from earlier Islamic tradition—and instead is a product of modern Western Enlightenment thinking. 

Abbès, Makram. Al-Islam wa al-Siyāsa fi al-Asr al-Wasīt, trans. of Islam et politique à l’âge classique (2009)Markaz Nuhud lil-dirasat wa al-buhuth, Beirut, 2020. 

This book offers a new approach of how to understand Islam and Politics in the classical age (7th-15th CE). Abbès argues that to understand the politics in the classical age, one needs to read three disciplines or genres: al-ādāb al-sulṭāniyya, fiqh and falsafa. The first contains ethical advice for the political authority, focusing on the values of ruling and its requirement of wisdom and experience from within and without. The second deals with rules and questions of legitimacy, but was overly concerned with question of political strife and stability. The third pays significant attention to normative politics in terms of natural law and the objective of perfecting man, within the philosophical milieu of the time. Thus, all these disciplines provide different perspectives on the relation between politics and religion. Only by encompassing works in all these three disciplines in the classical period, we can reach a comprehensive understanding of politics in that period. An important critique of Abbès’s work is the absence of the Prophet Muhammad’s (saw) experience and practice in his analysis and not focusing enough on the four rightly guided caliphs.

Abdurrahman, Taha. Suʾāl al-Akhlāq: Musāhama fī al-Naqd al-Akhlāqī lil- Ḥadātha al-Gharbiyya [The Question of Ethics: A Contribution to Ethical Criticism of Western Modernity], and Rūḥ al-Ḥadātha: Naḥwa al-Taʾsīs li-Ḥadātha Islāmiyya [The Spirit of Modernity: Towards Founding an Islamic Modernity], Casablanca and Beirut: al-Markaz al-Thaqāfī al-ʿArabī. 2000 and 2006 respectively.  

These two books articulate Taha Abdurrahman’s critique of western modernity. In the first, he deconstructs western modernity, exposing it weakness which, he argues, lies in its ethics, an ethics that is separated from religion. The second book constructs an alternative modernity based on Islam, an Islamic or spiritual modernity, focusing on Islamic ethics and morality. He distinguishes between the spirit [rūh] or essence of modernity, which can be multiple in accordance with the diversity of world traditions and how they approach it, and the fact [wāqi’] of modernity, as it manifests itself in the Euro-American version. Both are critical books for understanding western modernity and how to approach it from an Islamic ethical perspective. Wael Hallaq’s recent Reforming Modernity (2019) is an extensive engagement which these two works.

Al-Barghouti, Tamim. The Umma and the Dawla: The Nation State and the Arab Middle East. London, Pluto Press, 2008.

This work commendably engages with the key differences between the Islamic concept of Umma on the one hand and the modern notion of state. Barghouti demonstrates that the incongruity between the two runs deeper than a mere problem of translation. The book contrasts the colonially introduced nationalist identities to the precolonial Islamic identity the revolved around the concepts of Umma and Dawla. The Umma, the defining identity for Muslims, is a people who follow the Imam, that is, a guide, in the form of the ideal book-guide, the Quran, or their ideal human guide, the Prophet (saw). The community is thus defined in terms of religious symbols, texts, and ideals. It is non-territorial and based on the self-perception of belonging to a collectivity on the basis of Islam. Likewise, the ‘dawla’ is not synonymous with the modern ‘state’. In Islamic thought, sovereignty resides in the Umma, not the state, while the dawla refers to any authoritative political arrangement, that is temporary, not territorially fixed and usually associated with the ruling elite. And the Umma is responsible for holding the dawla accountable. The nation-state, on the other hand, is a very different construct, at the heart of whose appeal is the lure of colonial power. Taking the Egyptian nation-state as a case-study, he goes on to explicate the internal contradictions that underlie the nation-state in the Arab-Muslim world.

Asad, Talal. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford University Press, 2003.

Formations is an early and ground-clearing intervention that makes a fundamental epistemological break in the debate on the secular. In it, Asad seeks to critically interrogate the concept of ‘the secular’, and normative essentialist notions of its purported other, the ‘religious’/‘sacred’. This interrogation is pursued through the ‘shadows’ of the secular since it is so embedded a part of modernity. Secularity, Asad argues, is the domain of sensibilities, experiences, and embodied concepts which orient modern people’s sensorium and guide public understandings of truth. Secularism is a political doctrine purportedly concerned with matters of political organisation, legal and political rights, and institutional arrangements. Modern secularism is not the mere separation of religion from the public sphere nor the mere organisation of diverse societies (as per standard liberal political theories), but rather it is a process of establishing a new form of normative power over the modern subject. It presupposes new concepts of religion, ethics, and politics, and new imperatives associated with them. 

Casanova, José. Public Religions in the Modern World. University of Chicago Press, 1994.

One of the early critiques on secularisation theory, Casanova’s Public Religions argues for a greater public role for religion. He argues that the sociological secularisation paradigm stood more on ideology than empirical study. It was propelled by the Enlightenment critique of religion which provided the social sciences with a putatively convincing explanation for why religion would inevitably decline. In fact, it became a self-fulling prophecy and an independent carrier of processes of functional differentiation wherever the established churches became obstacles in the path of this secularisation.  Casanova attempts to show that the main fallacy in secularisation theory was the confusion of historical processes (of functional differentiation) with the alleged and anticipated consequences those processes were supposed to have on religion. He goes on to suggest the need to distinguish between three related but distinct connotations: secularisation as i) the decline of religious belief and practice; ii) the privatisation of religion; and iii) the differentiation of the secular spheres. On this view, the theory is actually comprised of a core differentiation thesis, which is accurate, and the two sub-theses of privatisation and religious decline, which are mistaken.

Davutoglu, Ahmet. Alternative Paradigms: The Impact of Islamic and Western Weltanschauungs on Political Theory. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1994.

Davutoglu puts forth the bold argument that the incongruence between Islamic and Western political theory is rooted in starkly different weltanschauungs (worldviews). He contends that the conflicts and contrasts between Islamic and Western political thought originate from their philosophical, methodological, and theoretical background rather than mere institutional and historical differences. He begins by examining the ontological foundations of Islam and Western political theory wherein the former represents a form of ontological differentiation whereas the latter is based on ontological proximity. The text goes on to examine the ways in which these foundational differences inform different conceptions of power, state, and society. Thus, justification in Islamic political theory directly refers to the trusteeship of man given to him by Allah, as the origin of axiology and absolute normativeness. In contrast, western political justification is secularized on the basis of a materialist methodology or a disengagement of morality from theology. In international relations, Islamic theory presents a bifurcation of Dar al-Islam versus Dar al-Harb—which acknowledges the existence of an alternative world order—whereas western theory is based on a multi-compartmentalization represented by the uniform nation-states. In the real world, argues Davutoglu, western civilization acquires a rigidly uniformist character. Islam offers a superior approach because it accepts the segmentation of governed peoples into religio-cultural groups (millets), although it rejects pyramidal socio-economic stratification into classes.

Hassan, Mona. Longing for the Lost Caliphate: A Transgenerational History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016.

Hassan’s work explores how Muslims, both individually and collectively, came to understand the meaning and importance of the loss of the Caliphate as an institution. While offering a civilizational approach to understanding reactions to the caliphate and its loss, her work is more geographically and temporally limited, focusing on reactions and responses to the destruction of the Abbasid caliphate in 1258 C.E. and the Ottoman caliphate in 1924 C.E. Drawing from Maurice Halbwachs’ notion of “Collective Memory”, Hasan connects the two disparate events via an extensive investigation of primary sources that emerged from each period. Her two main research questions ask: “What did the Muslims imagine to be lost with the disappearance of the Abbasid and Ottoman Caliphates in 1258 and 1924 respectively? And how did they attempt to recapture that perceived loss and in doing so redefine the caliphate for their times under shifting circumstances?” (p. 2) More specifically, Hassan explores both artistic and poetic responses in addition to scholarly responses to the absence of the caliphate in the thirteenth century, whereas she primarily engages with scholarly reactions in the aftermath of the Ottoman caliphate’s abolition in the twentieth century. Hassan’s overarching argument is that, similarly to how Jews and Christians share a type of collective memory that both longs for the past with the ultimate aim of restoring its glory, Muslims too share a transgenerational longing for the caliphate. The caliphate for many Muslims serves as a civilizational nodal point—a point of great pride and hope, but perhaps even more importantly, as a point of Ummatic anchoring. Despite the many obstacles that its restoration faces in the contemporary world, it is unlikely that Muslim longing for the caliphate will dissipate anytime soon. In many ways, it has become an inviolable symbol of Muslim unity that is etched deeply within the collective conscious of the global umma.

Kaminski, Joseph. Islam, Liberalism, and Ontology: A Critical Re-evaluation. New York, NY: Routledge, 2021.

This book offers comparative ontologies of both Islam and liberalism as discourses more broadly construed. The author argues that, despite recent efforts to speak of overlapping consensuses and discursive congruence, the fundamental categories that constitute “Islam” and “Liberalism” remain very different, and that these differences should be taken seriously. Thus far, no recent scholarly works have explicitly or meticulously broken down where these differences lie. Kaminski’s work is one of comparative political theory that is analytic rather than normative in nature. It first articulates a brief history of the development of liberalism. It then makes an effort to understand Islam as a coherent meta-tradition drawing heavily from the ideas of Talal Asad. He then moves into the comparative analysis part of the book where he explores questions related to rights, moral epistemologies, the role of religion in the public sphere, and more general approaches to legal discourse, via primary and canonical sources constitutive of both Islam and liberalism. He then goes on to articulate why communitarian modes of thought are better suited for engaging with Islam and contemporary socio-political modes of organization than liberalism is. He concludes his work by emphasizing key parts of Rushain Abbasi’s argument surrounding how differently earlier Muslims conceptualized the dīnī-dunyāwī distinction than it is conceptualized today in the modern world.

Rawls, John. Political Liberalism. Columbia University Press, 1993.

In adjusting the moral philosophy of ‘justice as fairness’—developed in A Theory of Justice (1971) as a systematic social-contract account of justice—to the ‘fact’ of pluralism, Rawls arrives at the idea of ‘political liberalism’. This work basically refigures justice as fairness, with substantively intact content, as a ‘freestanding’ political conception. It is a ‘political conception’ and not a ‘comprehensive doctrine’ given its circumscription of scope to political institutions (the ‘basic structure of society’) and values (leaving philosophy ‘as it is’). It is ‘freestanding’ because while still a moral and normative conception it is derived, expounded, and presented as standing alone from, and this endorsable by, all ‘reasonable’ comprehensive doctrines—thus paving the way for an ‘overlapping consensus’. This work thus marks a significant development in modern liberal theory by theorising a non-perfectionist liberalism purportedly neutral between controversial comprehensive doctrines.   

Sabet, Amr. Islam and the Political: Theory, Governance and International Relations. Pluto Press, 2008.

Islam and the Political raises a number of key questions on the place of Islam, Muslims, and Islamic political thought in the modern world. The key question revolves around the parameters of positive and critical engagement with the West, as an alternative to what Sabet refers to as acritical and adaptive engagement. The text examines key concepts including Islam and the appropriation of modernity, the Islamic paradigm of nations, and human rights discourse. 

Schmitt, Carl. Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans. Schwab G. University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Schmitt’s most famous work gives rise to an influential theme/area of ‘political theology’. For Schmitt, the term conceptualises the discovery and exposition of the theological dimension intertwined within the political. He contests the view of the political as completely independent from any transcendent theological notions, the political­­ as utterly immanent. This undergirds his grounding of the political in the friend/enemy distinction and its need for an absolute sovereign. For Schmitt, this is part of a critique of liberalism: the notion that there exist underlying common values that can inform rational political decisions is a myth. Sovereignty lies not in legal or constitutional norms but in the decision of the authority to suspend any such norms exceptionally; the sovereign makes decisions from a position of transcendence. Along with a debate on sovereignty, this work gives rise to a more prominent debate, after World War II, on secularisation and modernity’s demand to view itself as a new historical epoch whose legitimacy is self-derived and self-contained.

Siedentop, Larry. Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.

The thesis of this work is that secularism, classical liberalism, and European Christianity are all intimately connected. Contrary to how the religion-secularism divide is usually approached, Siedentop explicitly and forcefully contends that modern secularism is a fundamental Enlightenment and liberal value that nonetheless remains rooted in the Christian ethos. These three discourses operate in tandem to shape the modern world. One of his key claims is that one cannot understand secularism in isolation from the historical and intellectual developments that transpired within the classical liberal and European Christian traditions. Unlike other scholars who see secularism as its own unique tradition representing a break with Christian religious doctrine, Siedentop sees secularism as a larger part of the developmental process of European Christianity. Regarding how religious beliefs emerge, Siedentop contends that authentic beliefs derive from a comprehensive worldview of what the good or the good life entails, and for Christian secularists, this comprehensive worldview is rooted in the Christian moral tradition. He goes as far as to posit that secular liberalism is “the embodiment of Christian moral intuitions”. Such an understanding of secular liberalism posits an inherent type of moral content and a comprehensive set of beliefs that prioritize equal liberty as a good in and of itself. Secular liberalism for Siedentop therefore cannot be understood in isolation simply referring to the separation of church and state in its most formalistic sense. Christian religious doctrines provide a certain conception of the good that can be readily translated into the secular language of public reason; secular liberalism is the logical next step in the intellectual development of Christianity.

Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 2007.

In the work, Taylor’s most popular and influential, he presents a conception of secularity in terms of the background conditions within which people experience, and search for, ‘fullness’/the spiritual (as opposed to standard conceptions in terms of religious decline or institutional separation). He attempts to describe the move of Western Civilisation from a condition in Latin Christendom where people lived naïvely with a theistic construal as definitive reality to our present ‘secular age’ in which everyone moves between both theistic and atheistic construals as merely possible interpretations of reality. The advent of our secular age, Taylor argues, has been coterminous with the rise of an ‘exclusive’ humanism, and is defined by the ‘immanent frame’, comprising a host of modern formations: the buffered identity, self-discipline, individuality, a constructed social space, instrumental rationality and secular time. In this frame we come to understand our lives as taking place within a constellation of differentiated orders, cosmic (a ‘natural’ order fully open to understanding and mastery through science), social (open to human construction and reconstruction), moral (accepting no final goals beyond human flourishing), all of which are impersonal, self-sufficient, purely immanent orders functioning, as per the Grotian dictum, etsi Deus non daretur, ‘as if God did not exist’. 

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Last modified: May 10, 2022

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